How Alibaba Is Turning SMEs into Multinationals (Pt 2 of 2)


In Part 1, I argued that is attempting to both digitize and democratize global trade – and to dramatically expand it from large companies to small and medium enterprises (SMEs). That’s a pretty big idea. And in Part 1, I laid out a bit of the theory behind this.

But let me get back to what is actually doing this year.

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This is from my discussions with their management and a visit to their exhibit at CES in Las Vegas. The summary is they are starting to enable SMEs to act like MNCs in terms of cross-border transactions. Note: I came up with that phrase which I have since heard them using. So patting myself on the back a little.

All platforms start with 1-2 core interactions. From there, they can build in lots of crazy ways but there are usually 1-2 simple and powerful core interactions. For Taobao, it is consumers and small merchants buying and selling physical products. And to enable these core interactions, Alibaba provided the marketplace platform and the tools required. These tools include proven identities; reviews and trust; payments and escrow; and logistics and delivery.

So if the goal is to create a marketplace for cross-border trade, what tools do you need to enable the core 1-2 interactions? At the CES exhibit, was showing the early versions of some of the tools they are developing. Here’s what I saw:

A mobile app that lets you search for products globally.

As mentioned in Part 1, platforms lower transaction costs. One of the most important of these costs (especially for a global platform) is the search cost. If you a 1-2 person business (say a table designer in Texas), how do you confidently find the right manufactured product in China or India?

Well, now you can download the app on your smartphone. And you can start searching for the manufactured product you want (say iron legs for your custom tables). The app will show you options from China and eventually from around the world. This will be based on what you say you want, what you have bought before and what they know about you.  And it won’t just search the big manufacturers, it will search hundreds of thousands of SMEs. And you can view the ratings and reviews of these suppliers, just like any other e-commerce search.

The app also lets you do this with the camera. You point your smartphone at a product you like (in person, at a photo, etc.) and the app will search manufacturers for something similar. I tried this at CES by pointing the camera at a microphone – and I immediately got a list of manufacturers with similar products.

A video conference tool, with simultaneous translation.

The next step is often to talk with 5-10 companies you like. But communication is a problem. It means flying to China or having staff that speak Chinese. Or sending faxes. Communication can be a big issue in cross-border purchases.

However, the app has a video call tool with simultaneous translation. I tried it at CES and it worked really well. The person I called showed up on my screen and their spoken Mandarin was translated to English text on my screen.

Virtual factory tours?

In many situations, you would do a factory tour (or have someone do it for you). Alibaba is working on virtual reality for this.

Contracting, logistics and payment.

Ok. You now have the products you want to buy and the manufacturer you want to contract. And this is where we hit the major problems for SMEs trying to do cross-border trade.

  • What kind of agreement do we need? In what language?  Do we need a lawyer?
  • What are the regulations for importing this? Are they different for China vs. Vietnam vs. India vs. Brazil?
  • How do we send the money? Do we need to have the money held in escrow?
  • Who does the shipping? How do we get it through customs?
  • What if the goods are damaged? What if they take the money and just don’t send?

This stuff is all pretty complicated. It’s not surprising that SMEs don’t do really do much cross-border stuff.

This is where is really offering some amazing solutions.

  • They provide standard contracts for both parties. In the appropriate languages. And that are legal according to appropriate regulations.
  • They handle government services. This is important.
  • They handle all the logistics. Basically, door-to-door, including through customs.
  • They handle payment, with escrow. And they are even beginning to offer credit services.
  • If there are any problems, they have dispute resolution services.

Note some of their advertisements below. By the way, “Buy Now, Pay Later” is like the greatest slogan ever.

In theory, you can find the item you want on your smartphone. You can trust the legal, government and payment aspects. And you can click and buy – and get your items in about 5-7 days. In terms of decreasing transaction costs (which is the point of digital platforms), that is pretty amazing. “Global commerce at your fingertips” is a good slogan for all this.


And it gets better.

The example I just gave is for a small US company sourcing from a Chinese manufacturer. But a bigger idea is not just to connect US and Chinese companies. It is to connect all the world’s SMEs. A 1-2 person company in Texas could one day source from suppliers across Asia. And from India. And Latin America. And so on. And they could also sell. The same Texas SME that just bought iron table legs from China could then use the app to sell their customized tables internationally. They could sell to the USA, Asia, Latin America, Europe, and so on. That’s how an SME becomes a multinational.


And the idea is actually even bigger than that.

As mentioned, platforms start out with 1-2 core interactions and scale them up. But once the core users are active on the platform, new user groups and interactions start to emerge. For example:

  • Tencent went from QQ to online gaming. And then to Wechat and then to payments.
  • Alibaba went from Taobao ecommerce to payments. And then to entertainment (Tudou-Youku). Today, content creators are an increasingly important user group.
  • Didi went from taxi-hailing to ride-sharing and then to bicycles.
  • Grab in SE Asia began in ride-sharing and then expanded to payments. It is currently expanding into multiple areas, including healthcare.

A platform that has digitized and democratized global trade could expand dramatically from its 1-2 core interactions. Other user groups could join the platform. These could include designers, financial services companies, influencers, and content creators.

Anyways, the current US-China trade situation notwithstanding, this is all pretty exciting.

That’s my take. All thoughts on this would be appreciated. Thanks to the team at Alibaba for the invitation to chat.

Cheers, jeff


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